GeeCee alerted me to this, and I thank her for her excellent journalistic nose.
Eurogamer ran a review on Rise of the Godslayer, but you won’t find it on their website. Well, not anymore. It’s been taken down, as Eurogamer’s editors are “not completely satisfied that it meets the standards expected of MMO reviews.”
This… this isn’t the first time Eurogamer has encountered controversy when reviewing an MMO. Almost exactly a year ago, Ed Zitron wrote an extremely critical review of Darkfall, in which he gave the game a two-out-of-ten. The low score was significant, but only as the proximate cause for an even larger strom, one that was inaugurated when the lead developer of Darkfall, Tasos Flambouras, called out Zitron on the game’s official forums. Using Darkfall‘s server logs, Flambouras argued that Zitron had only played Darkfall for roughly two hours, with most of that short time spent in the character creator. Eurogamer didn’t pull the review, and they stood by their writer… but they did commission a second review.
At the time, none of this really mattered to me. Darkfall didn’t interest me in the slightest. I was trying out WAR for the first time. The only reason I knew about this controversy was because I’m a regular reader of Massively, and I followed the news only as an everyday lover of schadenfreude would.
But Massively isn’t the only website I read for gaming news. In particular, there’s one other – Rock, Paper, Shotgun. RPS focuses solely on PC gaming, and among other fantastic articles, the writers post hilarious and poignant multiplayer “Let’s Play!” pieces.
That re-review is the most memorable piece of game journalism I’ve ever read. It helps that its first sentence – “Of course, I haven’t played it enough.” – is one of those fantastic, Howard-Roark-laughed, Call-me-Ishmael-type openings. Gillen alternates between analysis of Darkfall and its flaws, and meditations on how an MMO review should be written. He concludes that MMO reviews, written in the style of conventional game reviews, are all but doomed to failure. Writers aren’t paid by the hour, but by the word count; it’s just not worth it to invest more time for the same amount of pay. And if a writer sticks with the game for sixty plus hours, there’s a good chance they’ve joined a self-selecting crowd that finds in the game something to enjoy. In Gillen’s analysis, there’s no right way to review an MMO, but there are plenty of wrong ones.
And so we return to the review of Rise of the Godslayer. It’s been taken down, but the comments betray some of the review’s more memorable lines. And I’m going to use said comments as evidence – is that fair? Maybe not. It’s clear that Eurogamer recognizes that the review was lacking in some way, and they’ve take steps to contain the situation. But, come on, guys – somewhere, multiple people thought the review as originally printed was a sufficiently rigorous piece of game journalism that it merited publication. Or maybe they didn’t – maybe the pressures of time and the market forced the powers-that-be to accept a deficient story. I don’t know. But it was published to the internet, and once something is on the internet…
The byline is currently “Eurogamer staff,” but the comments point to Quintin Smith as the original author. Which… is a surprise? “Quinns” isn’t a regular contributor to RPS, but he is a presence, a personality, on the website. In the two “Let’s Play!” pieces linked above, Quinns is a larger-than-life figure, boisterous and funny and likable and despicable, “the man you love to hate.”
And so, a gaming journalist I know and enjoy through RPS writes a review of an MMO expansion which is subsequently pulled because of quality control. Just what – going off of these second hand comments – went wrong?
There’s the question of how and when Rise of the Godslayer was reviewed. This was a ‘day zero’ review, released the day before RofG went live. Did Smith play in the closed beta, or the open beta that lasted for three days? As a game journalist, was he afforded special access? Just how much of a massive mutliplayer online game can you review in beta, open or closed? If you aren’t subscribed to an MMO and haven’t played since launch, can you really get the feel of what an expansion adds?
Then there was the tone of the article. Can it really be said that lines like “Behold the magical, mystical land of… China! They should have rolled with it and made Age of Conan: Conan vs. Communism.” are accurately engaging the source material? What does the People’s Republic of China actually have to do with an Asian-themed fantasy game, especially in light of the fact that the developers have said their main influences were drawn from classical Chinese and Korean culture?
Another excerpt, probably my favorite:
Age of Conan already had redundant abilities and a wealth of tactical options, so with the addition of dozens more perks and powers, character advancement can begin to feel a little sordid. Dropping into one of the level 80 characters Funcom kindly provided me with, I found myself having to study four racks of abilities and stances with at least a dozen more powers sat eagerly in menus, waiting to be given slots. But then once I did figure out what I was doing I found I could slouch through every fight with the same series of combos.
Like one of the commentators pointed out, no one in their right mind would say of Cataclysm: “Not having played WoW before, I was presented with 4 bars of something called ‘skills’ – it took a bit of getting used to, but in 10 minutes I figured how to play the game’s end-game content and it sucked. Furthermore, I found all the abilities at my disposal to be convoluted and unnecessary.”
At the root of it all is a general sense of ignorance of the game’s development cycle and what, as a full package, Age of Conan has to offer. The author advances statements about the game’s current condition that are, by all accounts, no longer correct. For instance, Smith appears to question the utility of adding another early-mid-level zone, saying “The lack of content that puts Conan players at risk of having to grind appears between levels 50 and 80, not 20 and 40.” He is apparently ignorant of Ymir’s Pass and Tarantia Commons, game zones added after launch to deal specifically with his complaint.
And at another point, Smith seems to cite RofG’s lack of a level cap increase as a dissappointed. “Khitai is big enough to render the fact that Rise of the Godslayer doesn’t include a level cap increase absolutely absurd. There are four huge, wide-open areas to explore, each as big as Gateway to Khitai, except with more dungeons. By Conan’s standards, there’s enough here to hypothetically nudge a player up to level 100, or perhaps even 110.” And at another point: “It’s through factions that you’ll acquire some of the epic loot that’s your only real goal in Khitan, since you’re not levelling up.” Why is the Alternate Advancement system not seen as a legitimate form of deepening the end game?
Gillen was correct in assessing the difficulties of reviewing an MMO. Unlike the majority of video games, MMOs aren’t static. The change an FPS undergoes when a new map pack purchased or a new patch releassed is glacially slow when compared to the speed with which MMOs are (should be?) patched and modified. And MMOs are also massive – it’s in their genre title, for gosh sake. Taken together, these two facts – the evolving nature of MMOs, and the breadth of their content – preclude the chance that MMOs can be treated like normal games. Maybe the best solution is getting the group of self-selecting game advocates to stick with their favorite MMOs. Because the fact is, the current system isn’t working – there won’t always be a Gillen to re-review the works of game journalism’s Zitrons and Smiths.
EDIT: I’ve since expanded on some of my ideas and retracted some of my claims, here.